Good job(?)


I’ve been following Jeremy Powers for years. He’s fascinating in a number of ways, not least for being both the dominant racer in North America on the one hand, and an absolute underdog over in Europe on the other. Meeting him in person at Paris-to-Ancaster this past spring confirmed my longstanding impression: he’s a wonderful person. As Jeremy has transitioned away from seasons of road racing and come to focus exclusively on his cyclocross program, his potential as a contender in the big races of Belgium and its surrounds seemed to be confirmed by his 6th place finish in Las Vegas in September, when the World Cup came to North America for the first time in history. Almost all the best riders in the world were there, and Jeremy was great. Fans were thus optimistic that he’d be able to contend in the second round in Valkenberg, Netherlands, on Sunday, October 18.

I watched the race after returning home from our local race, and was sad to see Jeremy slip from a great start in 6th place down to 14th, then out of the picture. The course was extremely demanding, and at least a few things had to go wrong for Powers to slip into the 40s by the end.

How was he to speak to his performance? On Thursday the following week, Powers posted a piece on his website that laid to bare his feelings and analysis of his ‘failure.’ In his piece, Jeremy demonstrates why he’s a hero to so many cycling fans, racers and non-racers alike: he owns his performance, he discusses the steps he’ll take to learn from and build on it, and he’s honest. Jeremy puts himself out there, heart on his sleeve, vulnerability in the open; human, real, authentic. This is why I, and so many others, respect this man as a person and an athlete. This is also what makes him one of the best brand ambassadors in sport.

However, I think Jeremy’s message might have come out a little differently than he intended, or at least, might benefit from a bit of discussion.

Below, Jeremy articulates how he aims to translate his loss into improvement:

…I decided to turn this into a motivational blog versus an excuses blog. The question is, how am I going to put myself in the mindset to [win in Europe]? For me, cycling is my body of work in life and I take that so seriously, every time I line up on the start line. I put that on myself: this is my life, there is a goal I’m striving for, and the only person that can push me to get there is me, not my coach, not my wife, not my support network or sponsors…Me. I dictate my outcome in everything.

Note that Jeremy moves from taking complete responsibility for his performance – no excuses – to a statement about will, specifically, that one can control outcomes if the right steps are taken through preparation and execution. But later, he goes on to say, “[i]n cycling or sport, sometimes we plan for execution to go one way but it goes a completely different way. That’s sport.” Here I sense a bit of tension in the mind of an athlete trying to own his outcome as fully as he can, and one who also understands that these outcomes are never fully within our control. So when he says “I dictate my outcome in everything,” I think what he means is that there are a number of elements going into the preparation of a season or a race that are within his control, and the performance itself can only be undertaken by him, the individual, BUT, the missing premise is that one can’t actually control everything. Shit happens, and we have to accept it as such.

This consideration is vital to those reading the following paragraph, which offers advice:

…. For those reading who are striving for that result, for that PR, for hitting a marker for yourself. The takeaway is, you own it. You control everything that’s happening in your world. You can make it happen with hard work and no one except you can do the work, but you have to put it in. Let me ask this, have you ever considered that the person that just smoked you in a race actually just out-worked you? Out-focused you? Start making action steps that allow you to succeed and get that goal checked off.  Ask your support network where you’re lacking.  Create a system to be better so you can set another goal.  Create confidence and momentum. Just don’t ever settle for good enough!

I understand what Jeremy is saying, but again, I think he doesn’t really mean “You control everything that’s happening in your world” in a literal sense. Perhaps in one’s ‘training world’ one controls quite a lot, but not everything. Without a doubt, the self-questioning he proposes is vital for those seeking to improve:

Let me ask this, have you ever considered that the person that just smoked you in a race actually just out-worked you? Out-focused you?

Absolutely. Yes. I realized a few years ago that most other racers who are better than me are not significantly more gifted. Usually, they work harder. So, I asked myself, ‘What is Derrick St. John doing in training?” and I tried to learn from that and emulate what I could, because Derrick also has a job, and has a really strong work ethic. What are people doing who are beating you? Try to do more of that.

But the reality, at the same time, is that we don’t control everything happening in our world. Most people who race bikes have jobs, many have families. Both carry their own challenges for someone who wants to be the best version of a bike racer they can be, and both can suffer if that objective is pursued too vigorously. One doesn’t choose their genetics either; no amount of hard work can translate into the transcendence of one’s genetics/physiology. If one tries to literally control everything, one will become pretty horrible company. I know I don’t want to go to that extreme, and I’m pretty certain that is not what Jeremy intends to prescribe.

Jeremy’s article, and others like it, from those rare riders in the professional ranks who write well and from the cuff (see Mike Woods’ work for more) reveals the mental battle they face on a daily basis, and sometimes try to work through in writing. In Jeremy’s piece we can see a very driven, motivated man who is trying to reconcile the push to ‘man up’ and own his reality with the truth that our fate isn’t simply ours. It’s always interwoven with that of others, a thread in the ever-shifting tapestry of life that is at once being constructed and deconstructed, each thread pulling those around it, and vice versa. We can’t excel on our own, despite others. Instead, we thrive and excel because of the roles others play in myriad ways. Sometimes others let us down. Sometimes we let others down. Sometimes excuses are reasons. The struggle many of us will continue to grapple with is knowing when to own an outcome, and knowing when to accept that shit happened, and there’s no lesson to be learned from it. Because that’s reality too.

While our minds tend toward black and white construals of reality, cognitive misers we are, much of life is about flailing around in the gray. For most of us, how much we want to devote to sport is an open question, one that is never decided, constantly in tension. How much is enough, how much is too much? There’s no one answer for everyone, let alone one persons. It’s a moving target, bound up in the fray of an ever-shifting context. I’d like to hear more from riders like Jeremy about the small steps and strategies that help them become their best versions of themselves. I want to hear about their struggles with their weight, and how they deal with it. I want to hear about how they motivate themselves to train when they’re bagged. I want to hear about how they stay healthy despite the demands of their sport. I want to hear about the struggle and the lessons.

You all know I’m not a PRO. I race with pros and PROs here and there, but I’m just a guy with a family and a job who loves to ride and race hard. But I can offer you a piece of advice you can put in your pocket and use today, assuming you are striving to improve your cycling.

It begins with hours. It’s not about kilometres, it’s about hours. Ask yourself how many hours you are doing each week on your bike, and whether you feel that number is consistent, too much, not enough, or just right. Does the amount fit into your life well? Could you do more without other aspects of your life suffering? If you can do more than you are presently doing, simply adding on will likely translate into improvement, unless you already riding really hard each time you saddle up, and you just add on more of the same. In that case, you might just make yourself more tired.

Let’s take 10 hours per week as an example. If you’ve been targeting 10 hours of ride time each week, this amount fits into your life well, and you don’t think more would work, you have to ask yourself whether you’re getting the most out of those 10 hours you can. This is where we fall into the gray zone, because for many riders, improving the quality of training undertaken in a given week will be inversely proportional to the quality of social time with riding buddies. For example, if you normally spend Sundays doing 3-4 hours with friends, at a decent pace, that’s great on the social side, and pretty good on the training side (best if you are one of the weaker riders). But, if we take a page out of Powers’ book we’ll want to look at what the best riders we know are doing on Sundays? Well, they might be doing 3-4 hours at a high normalized power on the Gatineau Parkway, loop after loop. A power meter is pretty much essential to this sort of workout (do you want to go there if you don’t have one?), and good luck finding more than one or two buddies who can do this workout at your pace. Further, we’re talking about a ‘workout’ not a ‘ride’; some might want to just ride. The workout will be tough mentally, but it will pay off later on. What do you want to do?

If you have a coach, they’ll tell you to do the loops. It’s what you should do if getting faster is your priority. However, for some, where fun is the underlying objective of their cycling, sacrificing social riding for the sake of results in races won’t look like a good deal. To others it will. When we look at most of the best riders around, we can see that they sacrifice a lot to be great. They ride alone a lot. They do boring rides a lot. They do what is effective and expedient. They earn their fitness and their results.

Returning to Powers’ advice, if you’re not happy with your performances, take an honest look at what your putting into your preparation. If you see opportunities to better use the hours you have in a week to ride, take them. If you’re doing intervals, nail them. Suffer. Remind yourself that in that moment, you are in the BEST position possible to improve. Nothing is in your way, you’re on the bike, the opportunity is right there to exploit. Take it. Do them right.

If you find yourself lamenting where you’re stacking up, but honest reflection reveals that you’re not willing to make the sacrifices it takes to improve into the best version of you possible (and that’s OK!), figure out how to accept where you’re at, and adjust your expectations accordingly.

If you are already doing everything you can with the time you have, and you’re not improving as much as you’d like, it’s ok. We all have our ceilings, and we can’t all strive endlessly. The key to enjoying bike racing is understanding where you have room to improve, and being good at judging the relative value of the sacrifices associated with the steps required.

When to go hard, how hard to go, for how long…there’s no formula. The secret sauce is made of honest self-reflection and identification of and action on opportunities that take us where we want to go. In working the balance with an eye to our limits, we must manifest the understanding that those limits don’t necessarily emanate from decisions we’ve made and continue to make. Sometimes they do, and therein lies the creative space we can either choose to explore or not. Other times, doing a ‘good job’ is not only a choice, but the best choice.